1. Greil Marcus, Mystery Train: Images Of America In Rock 'N' Roll Music
Greil Marcus is one of those rare critics whose sheer scholarly diligence can weave familiar cultural strands into something dazzlingly new. In his seminal essay collection Mystery Train, Marcus connects Robert Johnson, Elvis Presley, Randy Newman, Sly Stone, and The Band to classic American folk archetypes, explaining why their music matters from a historical perspective. Marcus isn't as skilled at describing the actual sounds that give people comfort and pleasure through a dark night, but he's a master of the morning-after postmortem.
2. Lester Bangs, Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung
Like Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, Lester Bangs has inspired more bad writing than a million middle-school breakups. But don't blame Bangs for what his disciples do. Determined to forge a prose style as exhilarating as the trashiest rock song, Bangs shredded critical convention, taking readers deep inside his head as he grappled with why he cared so much about, say, Lou Reed—and why Reed was doomed to let him down. Bangs was one of the few writers who could pen a pan with such enthusiasm that readers felt compelled to buy the record anyway, just to compare notes. This scattershot collection offers Bangs at his purest—which means it's impenetrable as often as it's brilliant.
3. Peter Guralnick, Last Train To Memphis: The Rise Of Elvis Presley and Careless Love: The Unmaking Of Elvis Presley
Guralnick's trilogy on American music forms—Lost Highway, Feel Like Going Home, and Sweet Soul Music—gets squeezed out of this list only because of the monumental achievement of his two-part Elvis bio. The attention to detail makes The King's story somehow feel fresh, grounding his unlikely rise in all the weird details of Memphis' days as an open city, then making his fall seem like the inevitable result for anyone who got what they wanted all the time.
4. Jerry Hopkins & Danny Sugerman, No One Here Gets Out Alive
Is it rock 'n' roll blasphemy to say that No One Here Gets Out Alive is better than any album The Doors ever made? Sure, The Doors left behind some classic rock songs, but their real legacy is tied to anecdotes about Jim Morrison getting busted for obscenity, or defying Ed Sullivan, or indulging in ritualistic witchcraft, or taking more drugs than one man could hold. No One Here Gets Out Alive demystifies a lot of the Morrison story, pointing out how calculated and pretentious his rock theatrics were. But at the same time, it adds new chapters to the long-passed-down tales of Doors depravity, practically boasting that in America, any boy can become a Young Lion just by posing as one.
5. Robert Christgau, Rock Albums Of The '70s: A Critical Guide; Christgau's Record Guide: The '80s; Christgau's Consumer Guide: Albums Of The '90s
Recently downsized Village Voice rock critic Robert Christgau—"The Dean" to his colleagues and admirers—made a sublime art of the capsule review, packing pithy observations and heartfelt appreciation into 150-word boxes. Of his three volumes of collected criticism, the best covers the '80s, when Top 40 and college radio were equally compelling, and Christgau could apply his naturally skeptical eye to artists who either bore the scrutiny, or shrunk away to nothing. Really, though, these books should be read as a trilogy, with special attention paid to the way the last decade's increasingly fragmented pop landscape and flood of DIY releases has caused even The Dean to sputter a little.
6. Dave Marsh, Bruce Springsteen–Two Hearts: The Definitive Biography, 1972-2003
Rock writer Jon Landau famously wrote, "I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen." (Shortly thereafter, he became Springsteen's producer and manager.) But Dave Marsh may be the critic for whom The Boss has meant the most. In books like Fortunate Son: The Best Of Dave Marsh and The Heart Of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, the frequently cranky critic wrestles with his faith in rock's power to unite the races and the classes, but in Springsteen, Marsh found his quintessential hero: a hardworking street poet who believes doo-wop and Motown are as eternal as Bob Dylan and "Louie Louie." Marsh's two Springsteen biographies, Born To Run and Glory Days—collected as Two Hearts—tell the rocker's story with a lot of behind-the-scenes detail, but they're as much essay as bio, with Marsh breaking down each album and tour, and finding their moral.
7. David Cantwell & Bill Friskics-Warren, Heartaches By The Number: Country Music's 500 Greatest Singles
In playing a country-and-western version of the what-makes-a-great-single guessing game established by Dave Marsh's The Heart Of Rock & Soul, David Cantwell and Bill Friskics-Warren forge an alternative history of roots music that explains—and defends—the existence of Faith Hill and Garth Brooks. The two authors analyze 500 great country singles and set them up against each other in a kind of extended dialectic, looking at what C&W hits have had to say about being poor and powerless in America in the 20th century.
8. Nick Tosches, Hellfire
If William Faulkner had created Jerry Lee Lewis as a character, he probably would have read a lot like the Lewis of Nick Tosches' arresting biography, obsessed with sin and redemption and doing little to avoid burning. The hard facts of Lewis' life are elsewhere, but Tosches presents a lot of truth about Lewis and the land that created him.
9. Legs McNeil & Gillian McCain, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History Of Punk
The exact origin of punk rock, from its sound to the actual word "punk," will always be debated, but McNeil and McCain's oral history is an impressively thorough chronicle of punk's American origins. The original version of the book covered the mid-'60s through 1980, which obviously excluded some of the genre's most productive years. An epilogue extends the story to 1992, but it's still only a postscript. The best parts of the book chronicle the raucous earliest days of punk, with people like Iggy Pop, Johnny Thunders, Patti Smith, the Ramones, and a massive chorus of other witnesses. (A who's-who list in the back helps readers keep track.)
10. Simon Reynolds, Rip It Up And Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984
Second-wave post-punk sounds have been so omnipresent since the turn of the millennium that it's felt as if the post-punk era never ended. Simon Reynolds' Rip It Up traces the boundaries of a genre that defined itself as without definition, from the DIY toy-soldier fantasies of Swell Maps to the straight-out-of-the-Marxist-squats polished pop of Scritti Politti. Nearly every band Reynolds covers has its own peculiar story, and the boo is inspiring, even though most of those stories end in compromises, thwarted dreams, and hard feelings.
11. Jeff Chang, Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History Of The Hip-Hop Generation
The basic facts of hip-hop's origins aren't hard to find, but facts only go so far. Chang's probing work of journalism recreates the circumstances leading to hip-hop's ascent by talking to those who were there and putting it in the context of the city's "benign neglect" of whole neighborhoods, plus the gang wars that rocked the Bronx in the late '60s and early '70s. Chang's coverage (which stretches from those years through the early-'80s flowering of rap, breakdancing, and graffiti) is so vivid that the book's second half feels rushed, but only by comparison. It's a cornerstone work for a genre short on definitive texts.
12. Michael Azerrad, Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From The American Indie Underground, 1981-1991
Music writer Michael Azerrad paints a macro portrait of the beginning of the American indie-rock and punk scenes by devoting chapters to some of its pioneer bands. And what a collection it is: Black Flag, The Minutemen (whose lyrics for "History Lesson Part 2" gave the book its title), Mission Of Burma, Minor Threat, Hüsker Dü, The Replacements, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Big Black, Dinosaur Jr., Fugazi, Mudhoney, and, um, Beat Happening. Each chapter follows a band from the beginning until it either breaks up or signs to a major label—i.e., until it stopped making music or stopped making good music, in Azerrad's opinion. It's an interesting idea, but ending the chapters on Hüsker Dü or The Replacements when they moved to the big leagues definitely misses a lot of the story. Still, Our Band is an enormously entertaining read—in spite of that Beat Happening chapter.
13. Mötley Crüe and Neil Strauss, The Dirt: Confessions Of The World's Most Notorious Rock Band
Don't expect the members of Mötley Crüe to have any shame: They reveal more dirt in their well-titled autobiography than any fan (or non-fan!) could've hoped for. Which makes this thick tome perfect for any celeb-gossip fan, even those who don't know Dr. Feelgood from Dr. Pepper. These man-children play practical jokes on each other, stab each other in the back, abuse whatever substances are around, fuck anything that walks, and wear a bunch of makeup. Sample line from Tommy Lee: "After we fucked, the relationship flew to a whole new level."
14. Ira A. Robbins, etc., The Trouser Press Record Guide; The Trouser Press Guide To '90s Rock
Trouser Press was a fine magazine during its brief run on select newsstands, but Ira Robbins' greatest contribution to popular culture has been the record guides that outlived their namesake. Long after Trouser Press folded, Robbins and his writing team continued to file regular dispatches on underground and alternative rock, via revised editions of the original guide. When that book got too unwieldy, Robbins started a new volume, focused on the explosion of indie-rock, hip-hop, and electronica that flooded the market in the '90s—the kind of music rarely covered by the likes of Rolling Stone and Spin. The '90s Trouser Press guide came out at exactly the right time, just as online commerce was gearing up, when readers could track down TP favorites like Zumpano and Mysteries Of Life on the infinite storeroom of the Internet.
15. Nick Hornby, High Fidelity
Music-loving nerds everywhere can't help but identify with—and even envy—the hero of Nick Hornby's cult novel High Fidelity. He owns and operates an independent record store, compulsively makes lists of his favorite songs, albums, and TV shows, and can't hold onto a girlfriend because his obsession has outstripped his ambition. High Fidelity's love story follows a fairly predictable "boy loses girl, boy finds other girls, boy loses those girls, boy gets first girl back" plot, but Hornby's observations on what it's like to be a young hipster are painfully accurate—as are his lists of the best songs about death.
16. Chuck Klosterman, Sex, Drugs, And Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto
Because we live in an age of insta-punditry and blog envy, Chuck Klosterman has become an unusually divisive figure, hailed by people who share his cockeyed, inclusive vision of popular culture, and skewered by those who can't see past the fact that he spends so much time championing hair metal and Billy Joel. In Sex, Drugs, And Cocoa Puffs, his most essential essay collection, Klosterman delivers his dissent from the critical hegemony in a voice simultaneously witty and honest, full of clever lines and an awareness that mere cleverness won't always cut it when it comes to explaining the schlock that makes our days on Earth tolerable.
17. Roddy Doyle, The Commitments
The story of how one committed soul fan from the darkest corner of Dublin attempted to spread the gospel by forming his own band, Roddy Doyle's first novel is so raucously funny that it's easy to overlook how smart it is about music. But in chronicling his protagonist's seemingly quixotic quest, Doyle captures the way great music can save souls, and the fragile, almost miraculous alignment of circumstances needed to create it.